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Long walk back to the big screen: ‘The Way’ returns to theaters for one day

Writer-director Emilio Estevez talks about his film journey, Harry Belafonte, and directing family members.

Writer-director Emilio Estevez (right) on the set of "The Way.”E2 Films

With its spiritual message, writer-director Emilio Estevez’s 2011 film, “The Way,” has cultivated a following among religious and secular viewers. Starring Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, as well as Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, and Yorick van Wageningen, the movie follows four people who walk “El Camino de Santiago,” a sacred pilgrimage in Spain. Each character has a reason for making the journey; for Tom (Sheen), it’s to continue the pilgrimage his estranged son started before he was killed by inclement weather. He brings his son’s ashes with him in a backpack.

The film is partly based on Jack Hitt’s book “Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain.” A sequel is in the works.


The Globe spoke with Estevez about his film and its upcoming one-day theatrical re-release on May 16 with Fathom Events.

Q. Before we talk about “The Way,” I want to get one quick question out of the way, no pun intended. You directed the late Harry Belafonte in 2006’s “Bobby,” about the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Would you mind saying a few words about that experience?

A. It was extraordinary. He walked into the room, and you felt his presence. And we were a huge, star-studded cast. But when Harry Belafonte walked on that set, you knew he was there before you saw him. It wasn’t something he pushed. It was just his way. His vibe, his grace, and his love. You just felt it. You felt the history coming into the room with him.

Q. Also, it’s the 40th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of “The Outsiders” and the 35th anniversary of “Young Guns.”

A. I think I was 19 on the set of “The Outsiders.” It was just such a thrill. To get cast, even in a small role, in a Francis Coppola movie was kind of a big deal.


Q. Like “The Way,” those are ensemble movies. You tend to gravitate toward those.

A. I love an ensemble piece. I enjoy the camaraderie of it. If the movie succeeds, the whole team succeeds. If it fails, there’s no one person to blame.

Q. What inspired you to pursue making “The Way”?

A. I was inspired by my son [Taylor], who met a girl and moved to Spain. And I was trying to figure out how to spend time with him. I thought the best way to do that would be to make a movie in Spain. I began to talk to my Pop — I said, “I want to write this thing for you.”

Martin was really instrumental in the development of the script. He would suggest things, like “how about my backpack falls into a river and I have to retrieve it?” Or, “how about my backpack gets stolen in Burgos, and we chase the thief all through the town?” This is not a big studio movie with a lot of money. As the producer, I was thinking a lot smaller, and my dad was thinking

Q. — More screen time for the star!

A. Yeah. I can tell you, as actors, we go through the script pages and everything is bulls—t but our part.

Martin Sheen in “The Way.” E2 Films

Q. A quick aside. You are very good at directing your family members and yourself. In “Rated X,” the 2000 biopic about “Behind the Green Door” filmmakers the Mitchell brothers — one of your best films — you directed your brother Charlie Sheen in his best performance.


A. Thank you. Charlie would be so, so thrilled to hear you say that because he was criticized for playing himself in that film. And, you know, the irony, of course, is that he was 100 percent sober while we were shooting.

Q. I believe Albert Finney said to play a good drunk or addict, you have to be sober.

A. You’re absolutely right, because you have choices if you’re sober. If you’re just drunk and playing drunk, that’s the only way to go.

Q. Was there a particular reason you wanted to cast your dad in this part in “The Way”?

A. I really wanted to remind people what an extraordinary actor he is. And that he’s one of the few actors you can watch as he’s sitting in silence.

Q. Had he done the pilgrimage?

A. Well, he had always been interested in doing it, but he had never taken the time. He went to Spain with my son. They only had a couple of weeks to check out the Camino, so they rented a car and drove it. They came back with stories. I began to develop the script, but I didn’t have the whole quartet figured out.

If you look at the film as a modern retelling of “The Wizard of Oz,” I had my Dorothy with Martin, my Tin Man with Deborah Kara Unger, and my Cowardly Lion with the Dutchman. I didn’t have my scarecrow yet.


Left to right: Martin Sheen as Tom, James Nesbitt as Jack, Deborah Kara Unger as Sarah, and Yorick van Wageningen as Joost in “The Way.” E2 Films

Q. How did you come across Jack Hitt’s book, and is James Nesbitt’s character, Jack, an homage to the writer?

A. So I was in a bookstore in New Mexico. I saw his book, and I started to read it. And I thought, “Well, what if my fourth character was Jack Hitt?” Not exactly him, but a writer who was suffering from writer’s block. When I was doing “Bobby,” I had a giant writer’s block that lasted for a year, and I was absolutely paralyzed. This character is my scarecrow! I optioned Jack’s book. There were some stories in there that inspired me to finish the screenplay. So, yes, Nesbitt is Jack.

Q. You shot this film in Spain in 2009.

A. That’s right, on Super 16. That’s why the film is swimming in grain, and it just looks delicious. I love that graininess we just don’t see anymore when we go to the movies.

Q. I love it, too. One of the other old-school things I also enjoyed was your throwback to those onscreen maps they used in old movies, the ones that showed a trip’s progress with dots.

A. Like in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Our cartographer drew that map by hand and it took him forever! I know [the gimmick] is so totally base, but I don’t care.


Q. Before “The Way” opened here in 2011, it opened in Spain in 2010. Considering El Camino is such an important and sacred part of Spanish culture, what was the reception like there?

A. Well, the Spaniards were initially skeptical of an American group of filmmakers coming in and making a movie about what they considered a national treasure. “What do you Americans know about our community?” But it sometimes takes an outsider to show just how extraordinary something is and how people feel about it.

Once they watched the film, they saw that I not only paid tribute to their national treasure, but that I also dedicated the movie to my grandfather, Francisco Estevez. There was no denying the Spanish roots when we were shooting, but it wasn’t obvious to the Spaniards until they saw the film.

Q. Was May 16 a significant date for this re-release?

A. No. Fathom approached us and said, “We’ve got an open date on May 16.”

We’ve redone the trailers and given the movie a facelift so it can be rediscovered by a new generation. Coming out of the pandemic, the movie feels like it’s ready for close-up. It feels more timely, and it feels more timeless. “The Way” deals with grief and loss. And you know, I think that we as a country really haven’t done that yet. We just lost over a million people. We haven’t fully grieved yet.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.